Assessing the Damage from the “Storm”
Since four months have now gone by since the start of “Operation Decisive Storm,” what has been accomplished? The Houthi/Ali Abdullah Salih alliance controls as much ground in Yemen as they did when the bombing started and may have even gained ground. In the south Ansar Shariah, the local variant of Al Qaeda, has expanded their intolerant influence.
While there are no public opinion polls available, a casual look at social media and reports from Yemeni citizens suggest that anger and hatred at the Saudis have increased to the boiling point. If the Saudis wanted a Sunni/Shi’a crisis in Yemen, they have certainly created one. Then there is the loss of life. UN estimates now are approaching 3,000 dead and thousands more wounded, many without adequate access to appropriate medical treatment. Estimates are as high as 20 million Yemenis suffering an acute humanitarian crisis with limited access to food, potable water, medical supplies and all the imports Yemen usually receives. A complete blockade of the ports and air has basically cut Yemen off from the rest of the world.
Then there is the physical destruction to the infrastructure. UNDP and the Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT) of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) have released satellite photos taken between May 10-17 that show the devastation only a month ago. In the major cities of Sanaa, Aden and Sa‘da some 2323 buildings had been destroyed. These include businesses, markets, government buildings, mosques, schools, hospitals and private homes in addition to major damage to the transport infrastructure. The airports in all three locations have suffered major damage and are closed. Electricity has been reduced to at least 25% of the availability, which was already sporadic, before the bombing started. And important buildings in Yemen’s rich cultural heritage have been blown apart.
It appears that several million Yemenis have been displaced by the fighting in addition to the number of Somali and other official refugees in UN monitored camps. Aid to those camps is also not arriving. The expats who often performed vital functions or served businesses have largely left Yemen. With no imports or exports the economy has literally ground to a halt. And the bombing continues with no peaceful resolution yet in sight. All sides have hardened their stance and dug in their heels, while Yemen plunges deeper and deeper into the worst crisis it has faced in recent memory.
This ill-conceived military venture has become a destructive tsunami, destroying not only life, limb and property, but the future for Yemen’s children. The rationale of stopping a dangerous Iranian-backed Shi‘a regime in Yemen has now become a self-fulfilled prophecy. The Houthi rebellion was entirely local, a grab for power which was as ill-advised as the Saudi bombing campaign, but even with its military arsenal Yemen posed no serious threat to any of its neighbors. Indeed, the Houthis were attempting to rid Yemen of al-Qaeda, an arch-enemy of Saudi Arabia, as well as Islah (a Yemeni clone of the Muslim Brotherhood), which in theory is also on the wrong side of the Saudi agenda. In damaging the Houthis the Saudi bombing has allowed Ansar Shariah to expand and gain sympathy.
The damage to Yemen is staggering, but there is even a greater geopolitical fallout from this air-headed war. The Saudis in their exaggerated fear of all things Shi‘a have only served to embolden ISIS, which has brutally propagandized an intolerant brand of Sunni Islam focusing on terrorism against Shi‘a groups, and just about everyone else in the region. The notion of a Sunni/Shi‘a divide, which does indeed have historical roots at times, is pure politics today as it was in the past. It has little to do with doctrinal or ritual differences but everything to do with a certain regime maintaining power and having the luxury to do so with its vast oil wealth. No Islamophobic act anywhere in the world has done as much damage to the Islamic faith as this politically charged division of Muslims into two warring camps. Like the Saudis, zealots in Iran contribute to the growing hatred. The level of intolerance everywhere is palpable and pathetic. The sectarian “death to” chants, the suicide bombings in mosques, the beheadings: all of these diversions are damaging the faith of Islam. This major crisis will not be solved with weapons purchased from non-Muslim powers, but needs Muslim peace makers. If salam alaykum is not for all Muslims, it really is for none.